You have mastered the technique of getting your food to precisely the right temperature and texture with your Anova. Now, it is time to conquer the next level - searing. Searing brings your professional-level results to new heights and makes your sous vide prepared food more appealing both your eyes AND your palate.
In this post, we are going to cover the full particulars of indoor searing. In the next month, we will be revisiting the topic of searing and traditionally outdoor methods like grilling. And we will be calling on some of our favorite #anovafoodnerd community contributors for that post, as well, and cover a wide range of common grill types!
What is searing?
Searing is a cooking technique in which we utilize very high heat to create a delicious, caramelized crust on the surface of a food item. This shallow browning method of searing creates what is called the Maillard reaction, frequently spoken about in sous vide forums. This is a chemical reaction between reducing sugars and amino acids that gives caramelized foods their distinctive, delicious flavor.
When we sear prior to fully cooking the meat or fish in question, that is a traditional sear. When we use methods like sous vide to cook the protein first and sear to get the benefits afterwards, that is more often known as a reverse-sear. For the purposes of this article, we will be referring to reverse searing simply as searing.
Why do we sear?
As we just mentioned, searing in itself creates a delicious flavor, but there are more reasons to get the hang of this technique. Searing usually improves the appearance of sous vide food, creating a greater contrast between the edges and center of precision cooked foodstuffs. Along similar lines, it also generates a difference in the texture and flavor of the inside versus outside, which is MUCH more tantalizing to the tastebuds.
Photo credit: #anovafoodnerd @steaknightmagazine via Instagram
Eating is a sensuous experience, meaning we use all of our senses while participating. The more we can stimulate them harmoniously, the more pleasureable of an experience our meals will be!
Do I need special tools for searing?
The short answer is no; you likely have everything you need to sear around the house already. Minimum requirements are cooking tongs or a spatula, a frying pan and a heat source, or a broiler. That said, there are some particular tools that will enhance your searing repertoire:
A cast-iron/stainless/hard-anodized pan
A blow torch
A Searzall torch attachment
A panini press/electric griddle
How hot is hot enough?
The surface of your meat or fish must exceed 300ºF/150ºC to get that pretty brown color, so technically, you can sear at any temperature there or above achieve it. HOWEVER, searing at lower temperatures will take longer and result in a thicker layer of protein with greater doneness.
When you use your Anova to sous vide, you likely cherish the edge-to-edge texture perfection. You like do not WANT to create a thick layer of more-done meat, so we recommend searing at a higher temperature to make the process quicker. And across all of the sources consulted to put together to write this post, there is a general consensus of using the smoke point temperature of whatever fat you use, if you use any, as a guide.
To oil or not to oil?
Continuing with the topic of oil, there are conflicting views on this one as it can depend on both the cook and the protein being seared. Higher fat meats may not require additional oil added to the pan. When you DO choose to add oil, a very important thing to consider is the smoke point.
The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which a cooking oil or fat begins to break down to glycerol and free fatty acids. When that breakdown happens, free radicals and a compound called “acrolein” (note the same root as the word acrid) are created, giving your food that burnt, bitter flavor.
In most cases, we like use a very small amount of higher-smoke-point fat/oil to coat the pan when pan-searing. It helps the protein release from the pan more easily and creates more even contact between the surface area of the meat and the pan.
We designed the MOST complete chart of smoke points out there! Click here for a printable PDF.
Are there steps I need to take before the searing begins?
YES. To get the most out of your searing, you DO need to take a few extra steps:
Dry the meat off. All you have to do is pat it dry with paper towels, but it is integral to remove as much water as possible from the surface of the meat. Remember how I said that the surface of the meat must exceed 150ºC/300ºF to get all caramelized? Well, water steams at 100ºC/212ºF. If there is moisture on your steak, the water will heat first and steam your meat. No bueno.
Season it. Unless you previously brined, it is recommended that you salt & pepper again. This will help form that yummy, crispy brown crust.
Let it sit for a few minutes at room temperature. This allows a little more moisture to evaporate, and room temperature meat seems to get the best sear!
Get your pan SUPER hot. You want it to be so hot that when you flick a drop of water on it, that water jumps around, sizzles, and disappears.
When the above three conditions are met, add your oil and swirl or brush around the pan. I prefer a silicon brush to make the thinnest, most event layer. When that oil starts to shimmer or ripple, it’s time to drop the meat.
What else do I need to know about pan-searing?
You will likely need only 45 - 90 seconds per side if the pan is hot enough.
DO NOT CROWD THE PAN. You need at least 1”/2.5cm between the pieces, more if possible. Cooking will release more juices, and again - we do not want to steam this perfectly cooked deliciousness.
Protein needs consistent surface area contact to sear, so once you drop the meat in the pan, do not flip repeatedly or push it around. Give it the 45 seconds and only then should you try to move it or check it.
Are there other ways I can achieve that beautiful crust inside the house without the pan?
YES. We have four more potential methods to explain:
Broiler-Searing - Turn your broiler (aka “grill” in many non-American English-speaking countries) on to “High” and set shelf 4 - 6”/10 - 15cm beneath heat source. You will need to keep an eye on whatever it is you are browning, because this method can cook your protein very quickly, as well. Timing depends on the food you are caramelizing, but in my experience is around 5 - 10 minutes. Smokiness - moderate, and a very consistent color!
Torching - This is certainly one of the most impressive methods to utilize in front of guests, and you may be familiar with the concept from creme brulee! This is a quick method that gives you greater command of browning, especially with foods that have uneven surface area. It is best to place your protein on a baking rack on top of a baking tray that is resting on a heat-safe surface (like a stovetop range, trivet, or thick cutting board). This will protect your countertops as well as give you the best access to the entire surface area of the meat without moisture buildup at the base. See this video:
Using a Searzall - Inventor and chef Dave Arnold designed this torch attachment, and it creates a shallow, diffused flame through two layers of very fine stainless steel mesh. The consistent and shallow flame hits only the surface in wide swaths, so your protein will not have much of a layer of greater-doneness at all! The guidelines provided for the torch method also apply to the Searzall method. Video here:
Countertop panini press/griddle/grill - Most of these machines are able to get from 425ºF - 500ºF/218ºC - 260ºC, which is plenty hot enough for a quick sear. Turn your machine’s temperature to the highest setting and let it warm up while closed. When the “ready” light most are equipped with comes on, place your meat inside, again remembering to not crowd the plate. You want at least 1”/2.5cm between the pieces. This is also a method that will cook your meat QUICKLY, so make sure to limit the time in the closed press to 1 minute. NOTE: Of all the methods, this one produced the least smoke and had very quick and beautiful results!
How to Minimize Smoke from Searing
Indoor searing can create problems for people due to the propensity for smoke creation. Luckily, there are ways to reduce that by choosing specific searing methods, being particular about the oils you use, and utilizing less oil overall.
Pan-searing tends to create the most smoke, followed by broiling, then the torch methods, and finally the countertop pain press/griddle, which creates the least.
Always use an oil with higher smoke point if possible, and just use enough to coat the pan unless you are intentionally deep-frying. That is a method that we did not explore in this post but can definitely look at in the future if you are interested; let me know in the comments!
In preparation, we cooked a 1"/2.5cm boneless, organic grassfed ribeye in a 131ºF/55ºC bath for 2 hours, straight from the freezer.
Take your sous vide meat out of the bag and place on a paper-towel or towel-lined plate to draw moisture out of the bottom.
Pat the surface of the meat dry.
Season with salt, pepper, and any spices you would like prominently featured.
Heat your pan over high heat to get scorching hot. A drop of water added should sizzle and evaporate almost immediately.
Add your oil. We recommend using one with a high smoke point and only a little bit. We used 1 teaspoon/5ml avocado oil for a 12"/30.5cm cast iron skillet.
Spread the oil around the pan either by lifting, tilting, and swirling pan itself, or using a silicon brush.
Place the meat in the hot pan. Let sit for a minimum of 45 seconds before attempting to flip.
Flip and repeat treatment. This steak in particular required 90 seconds per side. We checked at 45 seconds and placed searing-side-down again for another 45 seconds.
Once you are satisfied with the color, remove from the pan.
The end result was a nice thin layer of caramelization and edge-to-edge consistency and tenderness. The bright red bloom is common in sous vide steaks!
Wrapping It Up
For even more information, join the discussion in our Community forum. We have a number of threads and #anovafoodnerd generated material, tips, and tricks about this very topic already available to you.
Searing is another major component to cooking like a pro. We have started this series with common indoor searing methods for meats. Future installments will include how to sear more delicate products (like seafood!) as well as how to utilize the most common outdoor grills to achieve amazing results. Please tell us in the comments what "searing" searing questions have been left unanswered so we can make sure to address them ASAP!